Storytime: The Horse Knows If You Know...

Many of us have heard how horses can sense our intention or emotions and have a feel for our confidence or fear. I can still hear my grandpa saying, in regards to a horse or a cow, “Don’t be scared; they can tell if you’re scared”. Of course, this sensitivity can affect our interactions with them, in both positive and negative ways.

We were searching for renegade heifers that had been spotted two days before. I had a client we’ll call Tom riding with me for 1-on-1 ranch experience and he was riding an old mare that was fairly dependable, excepting for some buddy-sour issues.

We were following a little stream and the brush and willows were thick most of the way. As we made our way near the bottom of the canyon, the heifers could be spotted holed up in an almost impenetrable stand of brush. I had been in that spot a couple months before and could recall how they would have gotten into there from further down the old logging track we were riding on.

There was no way to get down in there horseback, so I dismounted, handing the lead rope to my friend and began to make my way into the dense tangle of branches. I could hear, more than see, the heifers moving away and downstream of me, so I hurried to swing wide to the right in an attempt to push them back towards the open area. I called to Tom to ride down hill past the place where the game trails cut in from the thicket. I could hear the mare calling out, but I was too busy trying to get through the brush to think anything of it.

A couple of the cattle got by me and headed up Apple Tree Draw instead of heading back toward the logging track like I’d planned. Tom couldn’t tell where I needed him to be and was still uphill of where the heifers came out, running the risk of pushing them farther down the canyon, in the opposite direction than what we wanted. I had to do some serious bushwacking in order to get on the lower side of them before they scattered on us.

When I’d made it to the clear again, I could see Tom had dismounted as well and that the mare was indeed being quite fractious. I signaled him to make his way uphill and look for a place to pull off so I could drive the heifers up past him. This plan actually worked and we paused to catch our breath and get the leaves and branches out of my hat. He said that the old mare had acted up so much that he didn’t feel he could control her and so had stepped off. This was quite out of character for her, especially since I’d left her “buddy” with them.

I had naturally thought she’d be fine since I’d left my young gelding with them. But in thinking about it later, I realized that I’d left them leaderless – and the old mare knew it. Tom and my green horse sure didn’t know what was going on, so instead of feeling safe with another horse around, she sensed the hesitancy and lack of confidence in her rider and actually missed having me nearby. It was an interesting phenomenon and it just goes to show you that there are factors that would never cross our mind which can have a big effect on what your horse is thinking or feeling about a situation!